Theater Review: ‘Dancing at Lughnasa’ from Coralville’s City Circle Theatre Company

'Dancing at Lughnasa'

Coralville Center for the Performing Arts, Coralville, through May 14, $20-30

Amy Schaefer, McKayla Sturtz and Kevin Burford in City Circle Theatre Company’s 2023 production of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa.’ — Courtesy of Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

Before now, I wasn’t familiar with the 1992 Tony award winner for best play, Dancing at Lughnasa, or its playwright Brian Friel, who has been called “Ireland’s Chekhov.” I also must admit that I’ve attended Coralville’s Center for the Performing Arts and its resident theater company, City Circle’s productions, far less than some of the other theaters in the corridor.

It turns out, both in terms of this play and the theater showcasing it, I’ve been missing a lot! City Circle’s mounting of this charming play set in a small town in northern Ireland during the 1930s is beautifully realized on the Center’s grand proscenium.

Entering the theater, I was greeted by an intricate set, the work of Kent Reynolds, whose design proves an impressive union of grace and utility. The set creatively and efficiently provides all of the inside and outdoor spaces the play requires without the need for a single set change. Somehow the Mundy home at the center of the story feels cozy and intimate while the surrounding hills feel vast and spacious — all on the same stage. At the back of the set, a cyclorama is dappled to impress the most beautiful, ever-changing sky — no doubt the handiwork of lighting designer, Jeff Crone. The effect was transporting.

Elizabeth Tracey’s able direction of Friel’s memory play hews close to the heart of the drama: the Mundy family. An adult Michael, played by Phil Jordan, tells a story of his youth which unfolds before us in August of 1936. But he is less remembering a plot and more remembering the people — specifically the five, strong women of his childhood.

In this recalled August, the Mundy sisters (Michael’s mother and four aunts) are long past their own childhoods. With better (or any) prospects they would be matriarchs of their own families by now. Instead they work tirelessly to provide for themselves, to try to turn their lot into a life. They pour all their caretaking energy into the 7-year-old Michael (who we never see but watch them interact with from the perspective of our narrator, elder Michael, remembering). While Jordan doesn’t “become” Michael as a child, he tenderly watches the scenes and responds with words only a kid would use. This unexpected style of interaction provides a sweet dynamic between both our imagined young Michael and his aunts, and Jordan’s Michael with his memories.

From Coralville’s 2023 production of ‘Dancing at Lughnasa.’ — Courtesy of Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

Tracey’s direction brings each sister into focus as her own fully realized person, and the dynamics between them made the story for me. I fell in love with the Mundy sisters, in the midst of their desperate fears and dancing laughter. I understood why Michael wanted to bring us all back to this time in his memory. It’s a bright time when they were all together.

Amy Schaefer plays Kate, the eldest sister, with a perfect balance of scolding school marm and loving sibling holding the family together with grit and grace. One scene in particular between Schaefer and McKayla Sturtz as Maggie was masterfully staged and subtly wrought to bring us into the complexities of their lives and care for each other. Sturtz’s Maggie is as sassy and boisterous as they come — and offsets Shaefer’s more tightly wound Kate with a needed younger sibling’s lightness without compromising care or reliability. Sturtz brought energy to the role, lightness to the mood, and a sturdy shoulder to cry on when needed.

Noel VanDenBosch is cast as Agnes, the middle sister charged with bringing in money, cooking and cleaning, while always watching out for her sister Rose, played delightfully by Tara McGovern. Rose’s child-like innocence and romantic imagination makes her unable to be left alone. And though Agnes shoulders a too-heavy burden most days, VanDenBosch is able to portray, within the dignified and dutiful sister, a nearly bursting, romance-filled heart. At 35, Agnes still has dreams and crushes and just wants to go dancing. It must be a difficult balance for Agnes to be so young and so old at once — and VanDenBosch showed us both her youth and her exhaustion.

From Coralville’s 2023 production of ‘ Dancing at Lughnasa.’ — Courtesy of Coralville Center for the Performing Arts

The youngest sister, Christina, is played by Melissa Kaska and much of the story turns on her choices (past and present). Christina lays bare all of her sisters’ romantic longings — as she is Michael’s mother “out of wedlock” and still enjoys the on-again-off-again courtship of Michael’s father, played by a charming Josh Payne. Kaska mixes in a touch of hardened single mother to her giddy school girl which pans out into a sparkling vulnerability throughout. She positively glows when listening to her paramour tell stories or while dancing down the lane in his arms. In moments when sorrowful reality creeps in, I could see Christina’s heart re-crack open and feel the pain of needing what she can’t hold on to. Kaska has no fear in showing us it all; it’s beautiful work.

I haven’t even mentioned Father Jack — the sisters’ uncle just returned from decades as a priest of a leper colony in Africa. Suffice it to say that Kevin Burford’s portrayal was as clear as a bell. I hung on his every word, no matter what unexpected direction his tale took. His presence in the larger story was a gift, both for getting to see how each of his nieces dealt with him and his delivery of specific lines that brought deeper meaning to the play.

But one of my favorite characters in Dancing at Lughnasa is the music. Whether through a very temperamental wireless radio or from their own reliable voices, music weaves throughout and fills the late summer air with abundant joy, longing and sadness. From the joint contributions of sound designer Tim Moffit, music consultant Tara McGovern (who also plays Rose), original music by Dan Vaughn and even pre-show traditional Irish music performed by local musicians in the lobby — music brought so much to my experience of this “straight play.” My cheeks hurt from smiling so hard during a particularly rousing number for which I credit all of the actresses; their singing and dancing was imbued with such infectious joy.

Though marked by longing and loss, Dancing at Lughnasa is brimming over with a joy that can’t be contained by circumstance, and absolutely ought to be remembered.

Saunia Powell is a queer ex-theater maker and hospice chaplain.